Ambivalence pervades analyses of Nigeria's 2018 World Cup group. For some, this is definitely a group where Nigeria is certain to finish among the qualifying two teams. For others, the ranking states otherwise and both Argentina and Croatia should keep Nigeria out. The uncertainty among analysts about the likely outcome in the group has led some to christen it the Group of Death even though there are surely much stronger groups from top to bottom. My analysis is not so much to claim that I have a crystal ball. Instead, it is to provide some insight, another perspective, or fresh thinking beyond just results achieved by each team in the group. In doing so, I intend to examine the draw, the schedule of games, and then the teams. I believe those three areas are critical in gaining insight on what could happen in June in Russia.
The draw on December 1 was certainly not what Nigeria hoped for but it was not the worst case scenario either. In a sense, the best possible draw for Nigeria was to be the African team in Group A where Russia is seeded. That would have been an easier group, at least on paper. But it didn't happen. Instead, Nigeria was drawn in Group B with Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. It is a much tougher group but certainly easier than a worst case scenario that may have put Nigeria in a possible group with Germany and Spain! Thus, Nigeria escaped with a draw that gives it a reasonable chance to get to the Round of 16. After all to achieve great things at the World Cup you must first make it out of the group. After that, any thing is possible. That is thumbs up for Nigeria's chances come June.
Schedule of Games
Theoretically, it is always best to encounter the top seeded team in the final round of group games. The reasoning is that the top seed will come into that game already qualified and may rest some of its top players. But that is if the top seed has taken care of business in its first two games! That is a big IF because the top seed may disappoint in one of those earlier games and, thus, not always qualify before the final round of group games.
Second, it is best to play against the weakest team in the group in the second round of games rather than the first round. Why? Settling for a draw in the usually nervy opener provides an easier game to take maximum points in the second.
For Nigeria, the scheduling of games broke perfectly. Nigeria plays Iceland in the second round and the thinking is that Iceland may be the weakest team in the group in spite of the fact that it is ranked ahead of Nigeria. Then, Nigeria does not play top seed Argentina until the final round.
However, this is all theoretical. Nigeria had a somewhat similar schedule at the 2014 World Cup but instead of beginning with expected victory against Iran, it stumbled before beating Bosnia in the second round and had to sweat on Bosnia v Iran game before sneaking into the Round of 16. In any case, the schedule is much better than having to face the top seed first and then scrambling to qualify in the later games if it loses the opener against the top seed. Again, another thumbs up for Nigeria.
While it appears that Nigeria has a very good chance of qualifying, one must acknowledge that Nigeria is the lowest seeded team in the group, which means that it is theoretically expected to finish at the bottom of the group. However, on-field play can trump the ranking of teams. At least, that is what Nigeria must think. In that case, lets examine the teams in the group and their strengths.
Argentina. This is the top team in the group and a usual group mate of Nigeria. Argentina and Nigeria have been in the same group in five of Nigeria's six World Cup appearances. Dreadfully, Argentina has always beaten Nigeria at the World Cup. However, Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 recently to derive a psychological up lift. But how much would such uplift count when both teams meet in Russia? Notably, while both teams missed top stars during that 4-2 game, Argentina was without the World's best player Lionel Messi who surely will be on the field in Russia. Messi is a player who can significantly impact a game more than any other player in the world. Thus, that 4-2 victory may be meaningless come June. Make no mistake about that. With Aguero, and probably a returning Higuain, running ceaselessly behind the defense, Messi has the guile to either locate their runs or take on the defense by himself. Nevertheless, Nigeria has a good chance to earn a point or three in the game if its defense and midfield are disciplined. It will be a difficult game for Nigeria.
Croatia. Croatia certainly expects to qualify as one of the best two teams in the group and has the star names to support this expectation. This is a team that has been troubled for a while and has made several coaching changes as it sought to produce results that reflect its potential. While Croatia beat Spain at the Euro in 2016, it has drawn with likes of Finland and lost to Iceland. The midfield may be one of the best in the world but the reality is that this team needs loads of attempts to score. It is not a clinical team up front and certainly not as clinical as Nigeria's team. Mandzukic has a reasonable goal scoring ratio, but he is at the end of his career and so are most of the team's top players. This World Cup is probably their last hurray. Their recent 4-1 win over a poor Greek team is an aberration after difficult games in recent times. Its defense is also suspect but definitely good enough to compete against any of the teams in the group. Croatia has never played against Nigeria but it must be remembered that it destroyed Cameron 4-0 in its only victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Iceland. Nigeria has only met Iceland once, losing 0-3 in a second of a two-game Scandinavian tour in 1981. Nigeria had tied Norway 2-2 in the opening game of that tour with amateur players. But then Iceland was not exactly a powerhouse at the time. However, Iceland has developed rapidly building all-season fields that provide year-round play for its players and has developed numerous top grade local coaches that belie its low population. Results have followed, including a defeat of England at the European Championships in 2016 and beating Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers. Nevertheless, Iceland lacks players playing at the top leagues in Europe but it has not mattered as it has been coached into a disciplined outfit that is difficult to break down. Iceland is a dark horse that may be underestimated but it certainly can make noise in this group.
Nigeria. While each of the other teams in the group can be beaten, they each can also beat Nigeria. Nigeria, surely, will be an underdog in games against Argentina and Croatia. Against Iceland, Nigeria will be expected to dominate the ball and will have the difficult task of breaking down a sturdy Icelandic team. The keys in this group for Nigeria will be a defense that is alert to forwards making runs behind the defensive line. This means that Nigeria must avoid playing a high line and avoid pressuring the opponent very high because those may cause exploitable gaps in its own dangerous areas. Nevertheless, there are other issues. Against Croatia, particularly, the experimental 3-5-2 may not be the appropriate option. Instead, a more defensibly solid 4-5-1 should be preferred with a quick forward and quick wide midfielders. Against both Argentina and Iceland, the 3-5-2 may be preferred but for different reasons. Against Argentina, the 3-5-2 is more effective as an adapted 3-5-1-1 and compacting the spine of the formation, which is critical. Further, it would help to deny Messi in the middle with two defensive midfielders playing deeper than usual. Up front, the wide backs and forwards provide pace against an aging defense. Against Iceland, Nigeria will more likely have the initiative with a traditional 3-5-2 and would need the spaces wide to help break down a likely compact Iceland on the day.